An early promise

Gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis wants to make preschool and full-day kindergarten free. That could prove tough.

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder, the latest Democrat to enter the 2018 governor’s race, faces an uphill battle in fulfilling one of his first campaign promises: providing free preschool and full-day kindergarten to all Colorado kids.

After a visit Monday to a charter school he helped start, Polis told Chalkbeat he would create a bipartisan group to craft ballot language asking voters to increase taxes to cover the hundreds of millions of dollars required.

“We’re going to build a winning coalition,” he said. “We’re going to have Republicans and Democrats. We’re going to have the business community. We’re going to have educators. And we’re going to speak right to families about how important full-day kindergarten and preschool is and what a positive difference it can make in their lives.”

However, Colorado voters historically have rejected statewide tax increases for education, and state lawmakers have little appetite to spend existing money on early childhood education.

Backers say preschool and full-day kindergarten can help students, especially low-income students, develop early reading and math skills — along with social and emotional skills that help kids keep emotions in check, solve conflicts and build healthy relationships.

It’s unclear how much it would cost to pay for universal preschool access. The state spent $86 million in 2015 to send more than 21,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds to preschool through the Colorado Preschool Project.

To pay for full-day kindergarten for all Colorado students, the state would need to spend about an additional $250 million, according to a 2016 legislative analysis.

Colorado school districts receive a little more than half the average per pupil amount for kindergarten students compared to students in higher grades. School districts must make up the difference if they offer full-day kindergarten. Some districts have asked voters to pay for the program, while others charge tuition.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, has attempted to send more money to the state’s kindergarten classrooms for the last three years. He said he welcomed Polis’s commitment, but was skeptical.

“There’s a whole lot of difference between an election and reality,” he said. “I don’t see the governor’s office, no matter who is in there, sending a budget with $250 million for full-day kindergarten.”

Some of the state’s most conservative lawmakers oppose expanding funding for early childhood education because they believe parents — not the state — should be responsible for early learning.

Polis said it would not be mandatory for families to enroll their children in preschool.

“What we’re talking about is making preschool available to families,” he said.

Polis has a lengthy resume on education issues. He’s helped launch charter schools, is the former chairman of the State Board of Education and most recently became the highest ranking Democrat on the U.S. House’s Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee.

Other Democratic candidates who have announced for the 2018 race include U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and businessman Noel Ginsberg.

Current Republican candidates include George Brauchler, the 18th Judicial District attorney; Victor Mitchell, a former state lawmaker; and Doug Robinson, a businessman and nephew of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Chalkbeat Community Editor Ann Schimke contributed.

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.